Eco Tours Jacksonville Fl, Sightseeing Amelia Island, Eco Tours Amelia Island, Jacksonville Beach, Ponte Vedra Beach News Paper Article


This is an article that appeared in the Florida Times Union about our trips.

Saturday, October 26, 2002

Last modified at 4:18 p.m. on Friday, October 25, 2002

photo: neshorelines

  As morning breaks, a dolphin's fin breaks the waters of Mills Creek, where hundreds of dolphins gather each year for their week-and-a-half-long mating season.
-- Diane Uhley/staff

First Coast's beauty could be tourist draw

More park land being set aside


By Caren Burmeister
Shorelines staff writer

Some Beaches residents are so caught up in the daily rush of life they've never seen the throngs of dolphins playing and chasing schools of Spanish mackerel in the St. Johns River.

They've never seen the storks and rosette spoonbills gathered deep in the salt marsh, where even boats and long-lens cameras can't reach them.

They never sat still in a canoe and watched a white heron, reflected on the glassy surface of the Intracoastal Waterway, zero in on its next meal.

photo: neshorelines

  A great white heron takes flight from its perch on a dead tree in the marshes of the Intracoastal Waterway.
-- Diane Uhley/staff

"It's great out here," said Jim Hammond, an eco-tourism guide and lifetime fisherman who is never bored by the playful dolphins in Mills Creek. "I get so many 'oohs' and 'aahs' from this. You can almost put your hand in the water and touch one. How many people have seen this for real?"

Hammond is one of many business people who are earning a living off the delicate beauty and land along Jacksonville's rivers, some of which is being preserved through the Northeast Florida Blueways Project.

The Blueways is a string of islands along the Intracoastal Waterway between the Timucuan Ecological Preserve and St. Johns County that includes Dutton Island in Atlantic Beach and Cradle Creek Preserve in Jacksonville Beach.

photo: neshorelines

  A male and female dolphin rise together out of the waters of Mills Creek earlier this month. Mills Creek is one of the few spots in the state where dolphins congregate in large numbers during mating season.
-- Diane Uhley/staff
Mayor John Delaney's Preservation Project is working with Beaches cities to buy as many of the islands as possible to stop their development and promote recreation and tourism.

Dutton Island, the first island preserve purchased, officially opens today with a bus tour of the island and speeches by former Atlantic Beach mayors Lyman Fletcher and Suzanne Shaughnessy, who pushed for the island's purchase.

Among other things, the preserve will have a 100-foot fishing pier, hiking trails and a canoe and kayak launch.

"There's some significant biological diversity on the island," said Atlantic Beach City Manager Jim Hanson. "I've been told the fishing is very good out there too."

Castaway Island Preserve, a 300-acre wildlife sanctuary and wetland area on the west bank of the Intracoastal Waterway off San Pablo Road is expected to open in the spring.

On Nov. 9, Kayak Amelia will start running a kayak and canoe rental concession at Big Talbot Island. Next year, Jacksonville plans to start up the River Taxi, a water taxi that can carry dozens of passengers, that will run from Fort Caroline to Sisters Creek and the Kingsley Plantation.

photo: neshorelines

  Two boaters head out toward the marsh in the St. Johns River.
-- Diane Uhley/staff
While tourism officials have no hard numbers on the economic impact of the Blueways project, the potential is ready to be tapped, said Kitty Ratcliffe, president of Jacksonville & the Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"I really think this community is setting a standard," said Ratcliffe. "That will make it so much easier for the average person to go out and enjoy this. We can start to really market the area, identifying specific experiences that visitors they could have there."

The marshlands are a prime habitat for many rare birds, most notably the wood stork and possibly Worthington's marsh wren and MacGillivray's seaside sparrow. The tidal marshes and many small creeks that wind through them provide a nursery for fish, crabs, oysters and birds nests, some of which are rare and endangered.

The islands will have miles of self-contained trails that could tell the story of the land's history and its diverse species, which could easily be depicted on visitors' maps and brochures.

A 1998 study by Visit Florida, the official tourism marketing corporation for the state, showed that about half of Florida visitors included some type of nature-based activity in their itinerary, said spokesman Tom Flanigan.

The trend in tourism seems to be moving toward seeing the "real America," especially since last year's terrorist attacks, he said.

"Travelers are seeking an experience that reflects a unique sense of place," Flanigan said.

Hammond, who grew up fishing with his father and traded in a data processing job for his captain's license, said he has been trying to tell tourism officials that for years. But he said they didn't seem interested.

"The city hasn't promoted this water at all," Hammond said. "There's so much to be had here. This could be the tourist mecca of the South."

Delaney's Preservation Project, which began in January 1999, has so far purchased 35,337 acres of sensitive land across Duval County, which includes the Blueways Project.

"We're early in this," said Mark Middlebrook, Preservation Project manager. "It's a diamond in the rough."

In addition to eco-tourism, the preservation program is used as a growth management tool.

For example, three subdivisions had been proposed for Castaway Island Preserve, which would have brought homes to a high flood risk zone and increased traffic on San Pablo Road, one of the city's busiest two-lane streets.

Instead, now people have a quiet place for rest and contemplation, exercise and education, Middlebrook said.

"No other city in the nation has this," he said.

Jacksonville conservationists are getting in line to buy 5 acres of pristine tree-lined land at Seagate Avenue in Neptune Beach along the Intracoastal Waterway in case plans fall through for a controversial development there.

In addition, the Trust For Public Land, a national non-profit group committed to saving environmentally sensitive land, is appraising five islands owned by George Hodges off Butler Boulevard near The Sanctuary in Jacksonville Beach. Hodges recently marketed the island home sites with signs nailed to trees along Butler Boulevard.

Meanwhile, The Trust For Public Land is also working on some preservation projects south of the Palm Valley bridge, but has no contracts at this point.

The Trust for Public Land has a contract with Jacksonville to help identify, appraise and negotiate on land preservation projects. They are competing for prime property with developers, said Susan Grandin, director of the trust's Jacksonville office.

"The idea is to get out there ahead of the development curve," Grandin said. "That makes it very difficult."

Acquiring Dutton Island, Cradle Creek Preserve and Castaway Island Preserve was a big coup, Grandin said.

"I wish other local governments would do this," she said.

You can contact us by calling Jim Hammond at 904 757 7550  or emailing Jim Hammond at